The worst of Hurricane Irma has passed, and there is devastation in its wake. This photo series from The Atlantic offers a stirring glimpse at what happened in Florida—while also noting that “most reports indicate that most of Florida appears to have dodged a worst-case-scenario.” That is relatively good news. In much of the the Caribbean, the outlook is grimmer. By one report, 70% of the infrastructure on St. Thomas (of the U.S. Virgin Islands) was destroyed.
St. Thomas was also the setting for one Irma-related story of particular interest to those of us in the travel industry, and frankly to all with hotel stays in their futures. After the island’s international airport was closed, Marriott International chartered a ship to pick up guests stranded on the island and take them to safer ground in Puerto Rico. More than six-hundred guests were rescued and given free accommodation at Marriott properties until the storm had passed. As The Washington Post noted, some 35 people—not guests of Marriott properties—were also left at the dock in St. Thomas during this same rescue mission. Some of those left behind claimed that there was ample space onboard for them, which Marriott reps have confirmed.
What’s to be made of this? Was Marriott in the wrong? Certainly, there is reason to be upset by the situation of those left stranded at the dock, where supplies, food, etc. were limited and Hurricane José was closing in (it eventually turned north of the U.S.V.I.). But we on the site feel obliged to opine that Marriott doesn’t deserve the criticism it’s getting for its actions on September 8. This thought comes following this Q&A on Forbes.
About halfway down, we get to the following exchange between the writer (below: Solomon) and Tim Sheldon, president of the Caribbean and Latin America for Marriott International (below: Sheldon):
Solomon: What about even getting the guests to the dock from the hotel, in the face of the damaged infrastructure?
Sheldon: On this front, the minister of tourism was helpful in finding appropriate transportation of guests–not easy, when the roads were all but unpassable due to hurricane damage.
What was harder was that, because of crowd control concerns on the part of the company that owned the dock, they would not allow people to collect there ahead of time—we had to time their arrival to be almost exactly at the moment that the boat was ready to accept them aboard.
Solomon: You say the local tourism minister was helpful at this point. But overall, were you sure you had secured the cooperation of the local authorities—that they would even let the people on the boat if they were able to get there?
Sheldon: We had to operate within very strict parameters to have the best chance of making them comfortable with this operation. Because of the governmental entities with power over exits and documentation on the island, part of what we had to do was to submit detailed guest information for the ferry manifest. (The authorities required legal names, ages, dates of birth and medical information for every passenger they were going to allow to come on board). We got permission from our guests to release this [information] and we gave [the local authorities] a detailed manifest in response to this requirement.
Solomon: I’ve seen some troubling posts on social media about people who were, for whatever reason, not let on the boat. If so, who wasn’t letting them on the boat? Was this a Marriott decision? What more can you tell me about what was happening on the ground, on the ship, on the telephones—if you even had telephone communication at this point–
Sheldon: We did everything we could to help, ultimately to no avail. Approximately 35 people who were not Marriott guests, and therefore whose names were not on the detailed manifest required by the local authorities, arrived at the dock gates wanting passage off the island.
Solomon: Do you know who these 35 people were?
Sheldon: To our understanding, these were guests from other hotels and some local residents as well. Beyond that, we are limited in our knowledge, but this had no effect on our desire to assist.
Solomon: What happened?
Sheldon: The security personnel employed by the dock company would not—and we asked them repeatedly–allow them through the port gates and boarding area, because they were not on the manifest we prepared in advance, as a requirement for the boat to depart for international waters.
The General Managers who run our hotels on St. Thomas tried to work with dock personnel to allow them to get on the ship—we certainly had room aboard, which makes this both frustrating and disheartening.
If indeed the dock personnel were so strict about who could board, it seems that those on the Marriott side might not have had full authority to make boarding decisions. So we clarified:
JohnnyJet.com: In the Forbes story, Sheldon says “The General Managers who run our hotels on St. Thomas tried to work with dock personnel to allow them to get on the ship—we certainly had room aboard, which makes this both frustrating and disheartening.” So was it ultimately the dock personnel that made the decision to prohibit boarding by non-guests?
Marriott spokesperson: Yes. That is correct.
The fact remains that people were left stranded in dire circumstances, between and in the path of massive hurricanes without essential supplies. But Marriott’s efforts (and money; it put down $100,000 to charter the rescue ship) went toward relieving its guests (the only people it could anticipate meeting at the dock) of risk and danger. The same can not be said—so far as we can tell—of other hotel companies with properties and guests in St. Thomas (if you find evidence of similar goodwill efforts, please share it in the comments). That is an important point. In its efforts, Marriott’s team followed strict directives in high stakes in the interest of its guests’s safety. From experience, we can speak to the rigidity with which people in the Antilles (and other, less-developed places) sometimes keep to the rules. Even if that is an oversimplification (and it may be), it is—in our opinion—easy to see how Marriott’s decision-makers might come to equate rule aversion in the port (i.e. going against the demands of the people facilitating the rescue) with putting the entire mission (i.e. its guests’s safety) at risk. As articulated in this View from the Wing story, Marriott’s initial response to the outrage may not have been perfect, but that should hardly be the concern here.
In the end, the most important thing here is that all of the people unable to board the Marriott charter on September 8 made it out safe. But the efforts made by Marriott should be recognized, as well—and at the very least not ignored. Even if you believe that some of the people involved exercised poor judgment, you’ll have to admit that such criticism does not belong solely with the group that chartered the rescue boat.
What, ultimately, do you think? Do you agree that Marriott deserves credit more than blame? Please share your thoughts and insight below!